Bridging the STEM gap

Pittsburgh seeds efforts to prepare students and workers for jobs of the future
McNulty /​istock​.com Bridging the STEM gap
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If America is unable to meet our growing need for young people with STEM skills, it isn’t because we aren’t aware of the looming crisis. According to the online clearinghouse STEMconnector, more than 3,700 organizations across the country are working to bridge the STEM Gap.

The problem is so Hydra-​headed that it’s hard to know what to address first. Says Audrey Russo, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Technology Council: “Do you go all the way back in the pipeline and focus on kindergarten and preschool, or do you focus on high school? These are very complex issues. I think kids as early as age 5 should learn how to code and program. The skills they need to master are those kinds of skills — not coding, per se, but the ability to create something from nothing and learn how those things work.”

Compounding the situation is the old problem of the digital divide, the fear that STEM training and resources won’t trickle down to disadvantaged students.

Kids who live below the poverty line don’t have access to the same tools as other kids have,” Russo says. “What’s it like for a teacher to deal with some kids who have access to iPhones and others who haven’t? The gaps can be pretty dramatic. We’ve always had them, but now they’re dangerously wider. We’re seeing a lot of nontraditional solutions because the gap is so profound.”

Sharing resources and ideas is yet another difficulty. If 3,700 entities are tackling the same problem, how can we coordinate those efforts to ensure we’re not reinventing the wheel with every new thrust?

We’ve actually had a rich array of STEM programs in the region for quite a while, but we haven’t really had a transparent network of what those initiatives are,” observes Laura S. Fisher, senior vice president for the Allegheny Conference on Community Development. “Only if we have better mapping can we see where there are gaps and how we can connect things.”

Locally, the Carnegie Science Center has taken a leadership role on the coordination challenge and is in the preliminary stages of a STEM resources initiative that will include an online directory. Funded in part by the Alcoa Foundation, the Benedum Foundation and Shell, the package also is projected to include programs to familiarize educators with STEM tools available to them.

We want to provide them with a kind of one-​stop shop where they can find out how they can connect with others,” says Linda Ortenzo, director of STEM programs for the science center’s Chevron Center.

The shelves in that one-​stop shop will be bulging, as local organizations are attacking the STEM Gap with a variety of innovations that seek to reform standard education, supplement it, or toss it right out the window. Here’s a look at some of the most promising initiatives.

Re-​imagining learning

If the nation’s education system isn’t producing enough graduates with STEM skills, it stands to reason that the system must change. In our region, one of the most robust efforts at instituting that reform is the Kids+Creativity Network developed by the Grable Foundation and managed by the Sprout Fund. Gregg Behr, Grable’s executive director, notes that adding a science course or two to standard curricula won’t get the job done.

To focus on STEM alone is too limiting,” he says. “The focus has to be on re-​imagining and re-​engaging kids in learning. STEM is a really important part of that; we know what future workforce needs are. But we’re training kids for jobs that none of us can even imagine. The best thing we can do for kids is help them be agile in this world none of us can predict.

When we started talking to teachers and librarians and others, we heard them say the same thing — ‘I’m not connecting to kids the way I used to.’ We’re not talking about the kids of 20 or 10 years ago. We’re talking about the differences over two years. They’re differently wired in this information and networking age.”

To reach and hold students in new ways, Kids+Creativity provides a suite of services that helps teachers and administrators redesign libraries and museums. Through several programs at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, it supports prekindergarten-​grade 12 educators and “stimulates new thinking around the intersection of instruction and technology.” It’s involved with MAKESHOP at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, which fosters creativity. In the Elizabeth Forward School District, the network helped administrators reconfigure the library, which now features a multimedia lab and new tech tools that project images on the floor.

To my knowledge, it’s the first library in the country to be reimagined this way,” Behr says. “There comes a point where the kids want to geek out.”

A trade school on steroids

Many who study the stem gap consider technical and trade schools, as well as two-​year colleges, a key potential bridge between companies that need employees with STEM skills and workers who could fill those jobs. But, however unfair the reputation may be, such schools often are regarded as behind the times or, even less charitably, as a refuge for those unable to succeed at four-​year institutions.

If you harbor that attitude, meet the Energy Innovation Center (EIC), a new type of technical school that stands, fittingly enough, on the site of the old Connelley Vocational High School in the Hill District. Think of EIC as a trade school on steroids.

We’re doing a lot of the same things, but bringing it into the 21st century,” says Dr. Joe Jacobsen, EIC executive director of academic programs. “We’ll be a clearinghouse for the hands-​on, experiential component that technicians and engineers need to be successful.

EIC was designed and built to address two of the most important issues facing the country — the skills gap, because of the exodus of baby boomers, and energy. There’s an abundance of natural gas right now, but we know that won’t last forever.”

EIC will offer certificates and associate’s degrees as a trade school of yore might have, but it also will customize curricula to meet the needs of institutional, corporate and labor partners. The University of Pittsburgh and Duquesne University will locate labs at EIC, and the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 95 will have an office at EIC to help union members train or retrain for in-​demand tech jobs.

Even though it won’t formally open its doors until 2014, EIC already has conducted on-​site classes for corporations, including a session on energy project management at Eaton.

For the law firm Jones Lang LaSalle, EIC is creating a course on data management that will include eight videos available online, so that the emphasis is on multiple media rather than lectures alone.

There’s no good reason today why an instructor would get up in front of a class, talk for three hours and walk out,” Jacobsen says. “That’s ridiculous.”

Its work for Jones Lang shows just how long the reach of EIC might be and how it could act as an economic generator for this region. In summer 2014, EIC will invite faculty and administrators from around the country to Pittsburgh for a course on laboratory design. The program, underwritten by a federal grant, could bring dozens of people to town.

Jacobsen, who came here after heading a similar initiative in Milwaukee, knows full well that to realize its potential, EIC must cultivate a new image. “You have that whole thing about everyone going to a four-​year university, nobody has to get his hands dirty,” he says. “And if you choose something else, it means you don’t have the capacity to do anything meaningful in your life. That is so backwards. This is Plan A.”

Matching workers and companies

Although focused on workforce development in the broadest sense, Three Rivers Workforce Investment Board (TRWIB) finds itself devoting considerable time and attention to STEM, where the demand is hot.

STEM encompasses almost all production jobs,” notes board CEO Stefani Pashman. “It cuts across pretty much all sectors. STEM jobs require, in addition to technical skills, communications skills, being creative and flexible, the ability to work in teams. You need them all, and that’s not that easy to train.

We’re trying to be as loud as we can, helping people understand the value of science and that technical jobs are not necessarily the product of four-​year degrees. The biggest challenge is to think about a career pathway that falls short of college, at least for now.”

For the past seven years, Three Rivers Workforce Investment Board has conducted a summer camp called Imagine! Career Week, which brings together students, parents, educators, employers and youth-​serving agencies to introduce them to career education. An even more significant project may be the board’s administration of a federal grant to connect labor unions directly with local tech start-​ups so those companies can find the domestic talent they need to staff their businesses.

It will be some sort of clearinghouse where companies and workers can find each other,” Pashman says. “We’re trying to figure out the intersection that makes the most sense.

A creativity factory in Bakery Square

Always wanted to get into high-​tech printing but just couldn’t afford that MakerBot Replicator 2X Experimental 3D unit? Gave up welding because there was no room for a Torchmate CNC Cutting System in your modest duplex? Fear not. Now you can access those machines and dozens of other cutting-​edge production tools at TechShop Pittsburgh.

Located in the East End’s Bakery Square complex, TechShop offers many of the tools of modern manufacturing to any who care to use them, making it a sort of factory whose output is creativity. For a monthly fee of about $125 ($95 for students), members — once they’ve completed requisite courses in safety — can learn to operate these tools and acquire the skills to prepare them for STEM careers. There’s no supervision beyond the safety courses. You’re free to learn how to make things… on your own schedule.

I view TechShop as a library,” says Matt Verlinich, the facility’s general manager. “It’s like Andrew Carnegie’s vision to give access to information to everybody. It opens up a whole world of possibilities — ‘What can I make?’ That’s how we fit into the STEM mission, through that flexibility.”

The TechShop concept started in Silicon Valley but soon expanded to Detroit and Austin. Pittsburgh is the sixth TechShop, with others planned for Baltimore and Arizona. Although the Bakery Square operation opened only last March, it already boasts about 1,100 members, who have been using their dream machine shop for a variety of projects.

One member built an oven to cast wedding rings for himself and his fiancée. Another created a bone-​shaped table for his wife’s dog-​grooming business. Fledgling tech companies have found the shop a cheap alternative for prototype development. It spares them the costs of equipment purchase or lease, and TechShop does not demand an equity position for products made on its premises.

Perhaps more important for the STEM gap, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is a partner in TechShop Pittsburgh and has purchased 12 local memberships (2,000 nationally) to help train and retrain veterans for tech careers. Three Rivers Workforce Investment Board has purchased memberships for at-​risk youths. Verlinich expects to contact schools to explore how TechShop can help their students.

TechShop may never produce STEM-​savvy workers in great numbers, but it is contributing to a growing cadre of skilled job candidates prepared in nontraditional ways.

We don’t blow up the whole educational system,” Verlinich says, “but we do provide a competitive alternative that inspires and nurtures entrepreneurship.”

Editor’s Note: An economy demanding more and more workers with science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills; an education system unable to produce them. That, in a nutshell, is the STEM Gap, and the implications for America’s global competitiveness are scary. But Pittsburgh-​area organizations are among thousands nationwide stepping up to the challenge. The final installment of our STEM series explores some of these local efforts. This article is a journalistic product of the PittsburghTODAY project. Please visit pitts​burghto​day​.org.

Evan Pattak

Evan Pattak is a Pittsburgh freelance writer and publicist. His work appears regularly in TEQ, Pennsylvania Manufacturer, Pop City and Pittsburgh Quarterly Magazine.

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